Through the 500 years of the Roman Empire, it was led by a variety of rulers, from the insane Caligula, to the high praised Augustus. One of these rulers, Marcus Aurelius was not a particularly brilliant general, or a crazy ego-centric maniac. Rather, Aurelius was known for his philosophy and intelligence, and for, perhaps, saving the Western world through the defeat of the Germanic tribes. Marcus Aurelius, the last of the five good emperors, led Rome through some of its toughest challenges and was able to accomplish several achievements that rival of his predecessors. Antoninus Pius, the previous emperor of Rome before Aurelius, enjoyed a peaceful reign and never had to leave Italy. However his successor, Marcus Aurelius, did not enjoy the peace and stability of Antoninus’s reign. He dealt with several major military invasions/ threats, an open rebellion of one the governors, and plague that would eventually claim his own life.
Marcus Aurelius cemented his role as Rome’s most well rounded emperor through his philosophic beliefs, gritty military campaigns, and great political involvements. His educational background exposed him to philosophical beliefs he was famous for/made famous. Although Marcus Aurelius was known mostly for his intelligence and philosophy, he also led the legions against the Germanic Tribes. Even with all this chaos, Marcus Aurelius was able to be politically involved. From his book on stoic teachings and personal thoughts Mediations to his defeat of a renewed Parthanian Empire and troublesome Germanic tribes, these achievements showcase Aurelius as a capable Roman Emperor who was not afraid to lead during times of crisis.
Unlike other emperors who lacked the educated background, Aurelius found himself enormous stress. In addition to taking “a daily dose of theric” (Africa 99), he wrote his thoughts to help him cope with life; “For him, living was an endless circus of repellent spectacles of squabbling, plotting courtiers whose posed sincerity masked treachery,” (Africa 99). His philosophical background caused him to see life and the world as " shallow pomp, masques, sheep and herds, sham battles, bones flung to little curs, crumbs on a fish- pond, the fearful labor and burdens of ants, the scramble of scared mice, and puppets on strings,” (Africa 100). Aurelius writes about these “flaws” and his view of the world in Mediations.
Aurelius specifically talks about life and its meaning in “Mediations.” He states “Stray not thus aimlessly; but in every impulse take account of justice, and in every impression preserve the activity of thy understanding.” (Aurelius 38) Also “Submit thee to Fate of thing own free will, that she spin the threads of thy life to whatever end it please her.” (Aurelius 42) Through theses excerpts, Marcus Aurelius conveys to the reader of his strong belief of living a meaningful life, as well taking account of justice and preserving the mind. Not only does Aurelius have a clear purpose for life but also a clear idea of the boundary between evil and good.
He also interprets his own view of good and evil and how both of these forces are factors in the world. “I shall meet with a busybody, an ingrate, and a bully; with treachery, envy, and selfishness. All these vices have fallen to their share because they know not good and evil,” (Aurelius 12). This quote explains how common evil is in the world and how people have become that way because they are unable to distinguish between good and evil. In another passage he states how the divine force cannot make a person evil only a person’s own ignorance and weakness can; “For, if God exists….for the divine nature is incapable of involving thee in evil,” (Aurelius 15) Rather, Marcus Aurelius says, that God is “omniscient, and, being omniscient, omnipotent to foresee and correct all errors; nor would it have gone so far astray, whether through lack of power or lack of skill, as to allow good and evil to befall the evil and good alike without rhyme or reason,” (Aurelius 15) Aurelius’s belief of taking responsibility for his own actions may have played a role during his decision making as an Roman emperor as well as the other basic principles of Stoic philosophy.
Throughout the Mediations Aurelius summarizes the basic principles and ideas of Stoicism that he made famous and was known for following. These ideas include virtue and morality; “Adorn yourself with simplicity and modesty and with indifference towards the things which lie between virtues and vice. Love humanity. Follow nature. The poet says that Law rules all. And it is enough to remember the Law rules all,” (Aurelius 43). “These qualities highlighted by Aurelius “fall into one of the four Stoic virtues: wisdom, justice, courage, and temperance,” (McNeil 44). With excerpts of virtue, Aurelius also tells the reader what he learned from his models; “From my mother, piety and liberality;” (Aurelius 1). Having clear ideas of virtue and morality certainly changed Marcus Aurelius’s perspective as a ruler. Not only does he write about his own perspective, but of a general Stoic mindset.
Marcus Aurelius “introduces” the reader to a Stoic approach on many aspects in Mediations such as pleasure; “Pleasure then is neither good nor useful,” (Aurelius 93). Or pain; “Pain is either an evil to the body…or to the soul,” (Aurelius 95). Even death; “He who fears death either fears the loss of sensation or a different kind of sensation,” (Aurelius 107). And nature; “This you must always bear in mind, what is the nature of the whole…. According to the nature of which you are a part,” (Aurelius 155). These excerpts explain how Marcus Aurelius thought and how it influenced his decision making and perspective. For example Aurelius’s quote on pleasure implies that he thinks of pleasure as a bad, useless thing and this probably drove him to avoid most pleasure. Also with his quote pertaining to nature, he implies that he believes humans are not above nature and therefore should not act like they are above nature, because they to, are a part of nature. He even suggests of his belief in the afterlife with the quote about death.
Although Marcus Aurelius was known for being a philosopher, he also participated in several major political disasters during his reign. From the flood of Rome to the Parthanian Crisis and the Antonine Plague, to the revolt of Avidius Cassius, these showed the lack of stability the Marcus Aurelius faced during his reign. These events may have caused Aurelius enormous stress, resulting in poor health and drug abuse for the emperor. (He may have been unused to the immense pressure, as he served under in Antoninus who never left Italy. Nevertheless he managed to keep the empire together.
Aurelius had to deal with disasters few other emperors could imagine. During Marcus Aurelius’s reign there were two major natural disasters; the flood and the plague. In the spring of 162 A.D. the Tiber River overflows and much of Rome is destroyed and the city is left in famine. Aurelius personally paid attention this and provided for “Italian communities from Roman Granaries” (Birley 120). This disaster was one of the first of many challenges that Aurelius faced. After the Roman armies returned from the east, they brought a plague that ravaged the empire, killing around 5 million people, approximated a quarter of those infected. Aurelius had to take severe precautions as this plague severely weakened the empire. Not only did he have to deal with those problems, but also a four year war with Parthia.
The Parthanian crisis truly tested Marcus Aurelius in many ways. After the Parthanians invaded the Roman client of Armenia and defeated the Syrian governor’s army. At this time he was at vacationing at Alsium and became restless. His tutor Fronto suggested he rest but he replied,” I have duties hanging over me that can hardly be begged off,” (Birley 127). Marcus Aurelius realized the severity of the problem and the consequence if not dealt with properly. Aurelius’s coregent is sent with 3 legions to deal with this crisis. Marcus Aurelius stayed in Rome, participating in politics as well as observing the war from home. It would not be the only problem Aurelius dealt with in the eastern provinces.
Another political crisis occurred in 175 A.D. Aurelius had become very ill and reports of his death reached the governor of Syria. Avidius Cassius, with the encouragement of Faustina, declared himself the emperor thinking Aurelius was dead. At that time Marcus Aurelius was up north campaigning against the Germanic Tribes, and tried to keep the rebellion a secret. However he soon spoke to his troops, basically saying that he is shocked by the disloyalty of his friend, and hopes that Cassius would not be killed/ commit suicide as Aurelius would show mercy. (Birley 188) Marcus Aurelius hoped to end this dispute with as little bloodshed as possible. However Aurelius did not have the chance as a centurion kills Cassius.
Although Aurelius did not directly experience/ participate in most of these political events/ disasters, he nevertheless was influenced personally by these events and gave them personal attention, sacrifice, and thought. They made not have made such a profound effect on Aurelius and vice versa, but these events are still important to understanding Marcus Aurelius.
Although mainly a philosopher Marcus Aurelius also gained a large part of his reputation through his military campaigns against the Germanic tribes. These series of invasions and counter-invasions took place over the span over about 15 years, with 2 major wars. They tested the emperor physically and mentally, who was also dealing with the plague that weakened the Empire severely.
The first major Germanic invasion was in 170 B.C. (Germans led by Ballomar). He decisively beat a force of approx. 20,000 Romans and even “sieged Aquilea” (Birley 251), a city in northeast Italy. Marcus Aurelius then reorganized troops from other frontiers expelled the invaders by the end of the 171 B.C. Then Romans tried to diplomatically negotiate with other Germanic tribes. After negotiating, Marcus Aurelius leads the legions across the Danube and subjugates the Marcomanni in their own territory. They also defeated the Quadi, who had broken their treaty. In 177 B.C., the Quadi and Marcommani tribes revolted again. The Romans succeeded in quelling both rebellions, winning decisive victories against both tribes.
The impact of the invasions on Marcus Aurelius was notable. At that time Aurelius wrote many of the excerpts found in “Mediations” in response to his experience during those wars. Aurelius writes a reflective passage appreciating what heaven has given him. (Aurelius 11) The invasions became a constant nuisance to Aurelius in his later reign, and would die before he could see the lasting peace the campaigns had caused.
Although Marcus Aurelius was mainly known for being a philosopher and thinker, he also participated in several crises and events during his reign. His philosophical background played an important role in his life, as well as affected how Aurelius acted during his participation in events like the: Parthian Crisis or The Marcomannic Wars. Through his participation in these historical events, Aurelius shows that he is more than just a philosopher in a “world of books”, but also a politician and general, but most importantly, an Emperor of Rome. Even as these events took a stark tool on Aurelius, it also gave him strength and composure an emperor of his position needed. If not for these events, Aurelius may have not written his Mediations and might have well been just another forgotten figure in history.
Birley, Anthony R. Marcus Aurelius. London: Routledge, 2000. Print.
Aurelius, Marcus. The Mediations of Marcus Aurelius: Selections Annotated & Explained. Ann by Russell McNeil Woodstock: Skylight Paths 2007
Aurelius, Marcus. The Thoughts of Marcus Aurelius Antonius. Trns John Jackson Edinburgh: The Riverside Press, 1961.
Africa, Thomas W. "The Opium Addiction of Marcus Aurelius." Journal of the History of Ideas 22.1 (1961): 97-102. Print.